Honesty Is Not Synonymous With Integrity,And We Need To Know The Difference,For Integrity Is What We Need

August 15th, 2011
Jim Thomas

People often interchange the great virtues of honesty and integrity as if they are one and the same. But, they are decidedly distinct and separate, each being important in its own way.

As Professor Stephen L. Carter of Yale Law School points out in his book Integrity, one cannot have integrity without being honest, but one can be honest and yet lack integrity. Consider that for a moment.

The word “integrity” is invoked to describe everything from the condition of old master paintings to the state of human organs. We see it in TV advertising and politics. It appears in the names of businesses, apartment complexes, and on outdoor signage. That poses a problem. Everybody who uses the term seems to mean something different from everyone else.

Integrity in its bare-bones essence means adherence to principles. It is a three-step process: choosing the right course of conduct; acting consistently with the choice—even when it is inconvenient or unprofitable to do so; openly declaring where one stands. Accordingly, integrity is equated with moral reflection, steadfastness to commitments, trustworthiness.

The major difference between honesty and integrity is that one may be entirely honest without engaging in the thought and reflection integrity demands. The honest person may truthfully tell what he or she believes without the advance determination of whether it is right or wrong. This can range from matters mundane to the complex.

For example. One friend may tell another, “Only poor people work on garbage trucks.” She may be honest in her belief without taking the time to determine if she is right.

Consider this example. Being himself a graduate of an elite business school, a manager gives the more challenging assignments to staff with the same background. He does this, he believes, because they will do the job best and for the benefit of others who did not attend similar institutions. He doesn’t want them to fail. He claims integrity because he is acting according to his beliefs.

The manager fails the integrity test. The question is not whether his actions are consistent with what he most deeply believes but whether he has done the hard work of ascertaining whether what he believes is right and true.

Many refer to integrity as the “thinking person’s virtue.” Is it any wonder?

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